In summer, life becomes intolerable for rickshaw puller Mohammad Khan.
“I keep running into the shade to save myself from the sun,” he said as he waited for midafternoon customers in a busy New Delhi market.
Like millions of others, Khan is experiencing on the ground what a recent study has highlighted: Heat waves in India have become deadlier and further global warming could take a “relatively drastic” human toll in the coming years.
Amir Aghakouchak, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine who co-authored the study, said they found that even small variations in temperature are causing the change.
“While mean temperatures from 1960 to 2009 increased by around 0.5 C degrees, both heat waves and mortality have increased substantially,” he said.
The India-specific study is the latest grim warning of how new deadly summer highs are affecting India, where millions cope with perennial shortages of water and power.
Spring became summer when temperatures crossed 40 degrees Celsius in March in several parts of the country this year. Last year was declared the warmest year on record since 1901, and in May 2016, the northern town of Phalodi shattered the national heat record when the mercury touched 51 degrees Celsius. In 2015, the world’s fifth deadliest heat wave seared large swathes of India, claiming about 2,500 victims.
The director of the Indian Institute of Public Health in Gandhinagar, Dileep Mavalankar, said, “heat waves are the single most important reason of disaster-related deaths in India in the last few years although only the tip of the iceberg is getting reported.”
Focus on poor people
As record-breaking heat becomes a fact of life, the focus is turned on millions of poor people who are impacted the most by more intense summers, particularly in urban areas.
According to Aghakouchak, “adverse effects are pummeling the world’s most vulnerable populations.”
They are wage workers, such as construction laborers, rickshaw pullers, hawkers and vendors who toil outdoors in the day and live in sweltering slums. And in sprawling cities like New Delhi and Mumbai, where the population tops 20 million, the only shelter people on the street often find is in metro stations or under road bridges.
The deputy director at New Delhi’s Center for Science and Environment, Chandra Bhushan, said what is called an “urban heat island” effect is taking a huge toll on the health, productivity and livelihoods of poor people in cities.
“It’s a concrete jungle where heat gets trapped and many studies indicate that the temperature in city centers is 5 degrees, even 7 degrees higher than the ambient temperature,” he said.
Shorter work days
A report by the U.N. Environment Program last year said workers such as farmers or construction laborers will have to shorten their work days within four decades, simply because it will be too hot outdoors. That could result in significant economic loss for poor people in countries such as India.
Researchers in New Delhi say that is already happening. Studies have demonstrated that street hawkers and others lose three to four hours of work a day because even acclimatized populations are unable to cope with the spiking temperatures.
On a hot summer morning, 17-year-old Anil Kumar, is downcast. He usually hangs around Delhi’s popular landmark India Gate, hoping to make some money taking photos of visitors, but the crowds are much thinner than usual.
“I have come since the morning, but have not got a single customer. It is so sunny, people don’t come,” he said.
Heat Action Plan
As studies highlight that the high temperatures are here to stay, there have been growing calls for the government to draw up contingency plans to cope with heat events in the same manner as natural disasters like earthquakes and cyclones.
A handful of cities are now launching a Heat Action Plan begun five years ago in the western Ahmedabad city that has helped bring down heat-related deaths.
Mavalankar said it involves public awareness campaigns, setting up cooling spaces in public buildings, training doctors and alerting supervisors on how to protect laborers.
But the efforts are sporadic and more programs need to be implemented nationwide, experts say.
“You don’t allow people to work in the afternoon, you have availability of water and shelter, you have emergency medical response and office timings are changed,” Bhushan said. “In long term in urban areas, there is a lot of talk of having more greenery in the city to reduce the impact of heat island effect.”
A small start has been made. Last year, the Indian meteorological department began putting out temperature advisories from April to June for 100 Indian cities to encourage people to stay indoors on very hot days. However that is unlikely to help rickshaw puller Khan or photographer Kumar, who have no option but to earn their livelihood under a blazing sun.